“When I was 19, laying on the floor after being raped on the floor of a Payless shoe store at gunpoint, I decided never again,” Union said. “I decided I was going to use my celebrity, my platform … to talk about the horrors of sexual violence and what it does to your soul and to your psyche and to your sanity and to your family and to your relationships.”
Although her role is small and comes with no lines, Union said, “I thought it was more important to be the symbol that people can recognize to put the face to voicelessness and powerlessness that sexual assault leaves us with.”
“And there’s a scene where [Colman Domingo, who portrays Esther’s husband Hank Turner] is literally waiting for his wife who has been snatched away from him to be used and abused,” she explained. “And he’s waiting there for her to welcome her back in. And so many of us have not been welcomed back in and I needed people to see that, that is real, there is hope, there is faith, you are not broken or forsaken… There is a community that will love you, and that is what I have received from Hollywood.”
For more on the Toronto International Film Festival, go to PEOPLE.com/tiff
Union, 43, said that thinking about her rape often makes her want to “vomit.” Still, she promised to continue to be vocal and raise awareness.
“My personal discomfort is nothing compared to being a voice for people who feel absolutely voiceless and powerless,” she said. “We all want a lot of things, but the only thing we can control is ourselves. If there’s any message I could get out to anyone who’s ever sat in my seat, is: You are not broken, you are not alone, you have a tremendous amount of support whether you speak out or you keep your pain personal, you are real, you are valid, you are loved, and you are worthwhile.”
The discussion closely followed Birth of a Nation director, actor and producer Nate Parker‘s comments about his own involvement in a 1999 college rape case, which has received renewed interest following the revelation that his accuser committed suicide in 2012.
Parker and his friend Jean Celestin – who is listed as a collaborator on Birth of a Nation – were accused by a female classmate at Penn State University of sexual assault. Parker was charged, tried and subsequently acquitted. Celestin was charged and convicted, but his case was later overturned on an appeal after the accuser decided not to testify.
Parker, now 36, said earlier this summer that he was “filled with profound sorrow” when he learned about the woman’s death.
Asked Sunday why he never apologized to his accuser, Parker told a reporter, “I’ve addressed this a few times and I’m sure I’ll continue to address it in different ways moving forward.”
He noted earlier during the event that “we had over 400 people involved in this project,” and encouraged the focus be moved to them, rather than his personal life.
Union previously promised she would not take allegations against Parker “lightly,” writing in The Los Angeles Times, “Since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion.”
The actress said that she has read all 700 pages of Parker’s trial transcript, admitting, “I still don’t actually know. Nor does anyone who was not in that room.”
Birth of a Nation opens in theaters Oct. 7.